It’s happened again

It’s happened again. Almost always this situation arises when I’m doing something in continental Europe. This time I’m at a dance conference that brings together practitioners and researchers. Last time it was at a dance festival. I’m talking to someone, sometimes a choreographer but more often a curator or someone involved in programming dance performances. There’s a slight pause in the conversation and then she or he says, ‘You know, I don’t really know that much about what’s happening in dance in the UK’, and I try not to apologise but say there’s some British-based dance artists doing some really interesting things. Recently I’ve been mentioning people associated with Bellyflop, and some of the younger artists I’ve come across through working with ADAD. But at the back of my mind I’m cross. We are so cut off in the UK from the more interesting things that are happening across the English Channel and the North Sea.

It was an artist researcher from Spain who recently summed it up the best: ‘Why’ she asked me ‘is London such a terrible place for seeing interesting dance when it is such an important place for everything else? When I’m in London I see super interesting art exhibitions, great theatre productions, talks and conferences, film festivals, music … everything is really special. Why is the British dance world so out of step with this?’

A little history: with the honourable exception of Nottdance, British audiences didn’t get the chance to see the work of Xavier Le Roy, Jérôme Bel  – or other members of the generation who started showing new work in the 1990s – until the mid 2000s by which time there were new things happening in Europe that were responding to this.

And now, those British-based dancers who are in touch with European ideas and concerns – doing things at Impulstanz or Tanzquartier, or Berlin, or Brussels – seem fairly marginalised in the UK. There is a general lack of context in which their work could be understood, no discourse circulating through which to discuss it.

But I’m not, of course, going to mention this to the people I meet. What good would that do? Instead I put on a positive face and recommend a few names they really should look into. And I’m angry. People haven’t been doing their jobs properly. It shouldn’t be me having to do this promotional work. I shouldn’t have to keep finding myself in this embarrassing situation.

‘This thing that we do’ and ‘ON off’

I saw Katye Coe and Charlie Morrisey present two pieces – This thing that we do and ON off – to an invited audience at Leeds Beckett University about a week ago. This thing that we do is the name for an on-going duet improvisation practice that the two of them have been working on and trying out in different formats for about a year, while ON off is a solo that CM developed during a residency at the Munich Tanzwerk Europa festival a couple of years back.

I should declare an interest: I know both KC and CM quite well and sat in on a rehearsal a couple of days before the performance. If I understand correctly, both pieces have as one of their starting points Lisa Nelson’s tuning score. What the two pieces seem to me to have in common is a particular attention to the way each movement event builds on, advances, or closes and moves on from the previous one. Rather than ‘going with the flow’ in an ‘organic’ way, I get the sense in This thing that we do that KC and CM are focusing intensely at each moment, trying to take in all the information available to them and the incipient potential of what is in process of happening. As the piece evolves, it continually surprises me, as if they know what I might be expecting and are saying, ‘no, look at thus instead’.

Every time I’ve seen a run through of it, there’s been a moment when they each feel each others’ faces simultaneously with the palm of their hand. When I asked about it, they told me they got so much information by doing this. I don’t know whether, in performance, they also get information from beholders’ responses to what appears a very tender moment.

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Introducing the piece in Leeds, they explained that they’ve done it a couple of times with a third person using words to interject their own commentary, and they’ve also done it as a durational piece, repeating the score for hours in an art gallery space where the audience could come and go.

In Leeds they arranged the audience on each side of the performance space which became, in effect, a corridor. We were always aware that we were facing beholders on the other side who were looking in our direction so that we were always conscious of others also watching the duet and that they had a different point of view.

This had two consequences. We were always quite close to KC and CM, and I was much more aware, than I would have been in a more conventional theatrical space, of their three dimensionality and of the spaces they were creating around themselves through their movements. And I was aware of the relational aspect of performance. They were dancing for all of us, affecting us with the thoughtful sensuality and intensity of what they were doing, and this included opening up towards and being affected by us as we witnessed this thing that they were doing.

For me, ON off does something similar, although it is a solo and set. CM effectively controls the lighting by telling the technician (KC in this performance) ‘on’ or ‘off’. While the stage is dark, he prepares a tableau or movement event that we will see when he says ‘on’.

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He starts off naked, back stage right, pause, just being still, off. Then he’s holding a large cardboard box, off. The box is on the ground with a purple shirt spilling out of it, off. The shirt is sprawling across the stage, off. And so on.

It is a series of compositions of person and objects, in which the person becomes increasingly object-like, part of a network of connections creating this ensemble and affected by the space that also includes me and the other beholders. The final tableau is just objects, as performative presences alone on stage there in their own right.

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The logic through which one event follows another has a similar affective tone for me as that generated during This thing that we do. In the duet, the primary connection is between KC and CM. What seems key to me is the fact that all the time that they are performing they are seeking and processing information. In ON off, CM still seems to be collecting and processing information. No two performances can ever be quite the same. He looks as if he’s thinking to himself about what’s happening, keeping himself company, as it were, as he runs through and animates his score.

ON off creates a space in which to think about one’s relation with oneself and with the world – opening up towards the context in which one finds oneself and being aware of one’s affect on it. ON off made me aware of how much more intensely I could be conscious of this. This thing that we do left me thinking about KC and CM’s persistent attention to the intensity of each moment in the intimacy of shared experience.

My Christmas holiday project

My Christmas holiday project has been to make a video essay about Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning.

I’ve been showing bits of Paris is Burning to my students more or less every year since the early 1990s. Initially it was inextricably linked in my mind with ideas about the performance of gender. What I’ve noticed recently are the transsexuals in the film, probably because there has been a lot more about trans issues in the media lately.

[Venus Xtravaganza – from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/482940760011514915/%5D

 

Paris is Burning is probably the first film I saw that treated transsexuals in a sympathetic, non-sensational way. But the main reason I have been showing it to students studying dance is because of the footage of vogueing which it locates within Black and Latino gay communities and thus within African diasporic movement traditions. When I show it, I point out the link Livingston makes between vogueing and the politics underlying the gay lifestyles documented in the film.

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What I’ve tried to do in this video essay is to look again at vogueing from a twenty-first century point of view, one that sees similarities between the politics of vogueing and recent discussions about transgender and transexuality.

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